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How an Open Container May Give Police “Probable Cause” to Investigate You for Other Crimes

Updated: Feb 13, 2023 @ 12:51 am

Less than 1 minute Reading Time: Minutes

Having an open container of alcohol in your car is basically an invitation for police to stop and investigate you for a variety of other crimes, including drunk driving and possession of controlled substances.

The mere presence of the open container is often enough to give an officer “probable cause” to believe you have committed a crime. Indeed, the open container itself is a Class C misdemeanor under Texas law.

Appeals Court Upholds 50-Month Sentence of Michigan Man Charged With Federal Weapons Violation Following Open Container Violation

But many cases that start with a “simple” open container violation lead to more complex misdemeanor and felony charges. Take this recent case from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, United States v. Wilson. This case actually originated in Michigan, but many of the same legal principles are equally applicable here in Texas.

The defendant, in this case, was found asleep at the wheel of a car. Police initially thought the defendant might need medical care. The officer attempted to wake the defendant, and in doing so, they noticed an “open bottle” of liquor in the car’s center console.

The officers eventually roused the defendant. While the officers still believed this was a possible medical emergency, they nevertheless asked the defendant for permission to pat him down to check for weapons. The defendant “appeared to consent by first nodding his head, and then following the officer’s request to put his hands behind his back,” according to court records.

The officers recovered a pistol from the defendant’s waistband.

The defendant was placed under arrest.

Subsequent testing revealed the defendant had a blood-alcohol level that was nearly twice the legal limit in Michigan. The defendant also had several bags of cocaine on him at the time of his arrest.

Because the defendant had a prior criminal record, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stepped in and charged him with violations of federal weapons and drug laws.

The defendant pleaded guilty to the weapons charge but reserved his right to challenge the legality of the initial pat-down search.

The Sixth Circuit subsequently rejected the defendant’s appeal, affirming his conviction and 50-month federal prison sentence.

The Sixth Circuit said that by “nodding his head” and putting his hands behind his back, the defendant effectively consented to the search. There was no evidence of any coercion on the part of the officers. And even if the search was not consensual, the appeals court noted, the officers would have inevitably arrested the defendant anyway and searched him at that time.

This was largely due to the presence of the open container of alcohol in the defendant’s car, which is itself a violation of Michigan law. This, plus other “circumstantial evidence” of the defendant’s intoxication, was more than enough to give the officers probable cause to arrest the defendant.

Facing Similar Criminal Charges in Houston?

Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today!

Remember, you never have to consent to a warrantless search of your person or vehicle. Your best bet when stopped by law enforcement, even for something like an open container violation, is to keep your mouth shut.

And if you are placed under arrest for any reason, contact a qualified criminal defense attorney right away. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today if you need immediate assistance.

Houston DWI Lawyer Tad A Nelson is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the TBLS.

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